CHAPTER XIV. ST, MARY'S RIVER AND THE SUWANEE WILDERNESS.
A PORTAGE TO DUTTON. - DESCENT OF THE ST. MARY'S RIVER. - FETE GIVEN BY THE CITIZENS TO THE PAPER CANOE. - THE PROPOSED CANAL ROUTE ACROSS FLORIDA. - A PORTAGE TO THE SUWANEE RIVER. - A NEGRO SPEAKS ON ELECTRICITY AND THE TELEGRAPH. - A FREEDMAN'S SERMON.
I now ascended the beautiful St. Mary's River, which flows from the great Okefenokee Swamp. The state of Georgia was on my right hand, and Florida on my left. Pretty hammocks dotted the marshes, while the country presented peculiar and interesting characteristics. When four miles from Cumberland Sound, the little city of St. Mary's, situated on the Georgia side of the river, was before me; and I went ashore to make inquiries concerning the route to Okefenokee Swamp.
My object was to get information about the upper St. Mary's River, from which I proposed to make a portage of thirty-five or forty miles in a westerly direction to the Suwanee River, upon arriving at which I would descend to the Gulf of Mexico. My efforts, both at St. Mary's and Fernandina, on the Florida side of Cumberland Sound, to obtain any reliable information upon this matter, were unsuccessful. A settlement at Trader's Hill, about seventy-five miles up the St. Mary's River, was the geographical limit of local knowledge, while I wished to ascend the river at least one hundred miles beyond that point.
Believing that if I explored the uninhabited sources of the St. Mary's, I should be compelled to return without finding any settler upon its banks at the proper point of departure for a portage to the Suwanee, it became necessary to abandon all idea of ascending this river. I could not, however, give up the exploration of the route. In this dilemma, a kindly written letter seemed to solve the difficulties. Messrs. Dutton Rixford, northern gentlemen, who possessed large facilities for the manufacture of resin and turpentine at their new settlements of Dutton, six miles from the St. Mary's River, and at Rixford, near the Suwanee, kindly proposed that I should take my canoe by railroad from Cumberland Sound to Dutton. From that station Mr. Dutton offered to transport the boat through the wilderness to the St. Mary's River, which could be from that point easily descended to the sea. The Suwanee River, at Rixford, could be reached by rail, and the voyage would end at its debouchure on the marshy coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
Hon. David Yulee, president and one-third owner of the A. G. W. I. T. C. Railroad, which connects the Atlantic coast at Fernandina with the Gulf coast at Cedar Keys, offered me the free use of his long railroad, for any purpose of exploration, while his son, Mr. C. Wickliffe Yulee, exerted himself to remove all impediments to delay.
These gentlemen, being native Floridians, have done much towards encouraging all legitimate exploration of the peninsula, and have also done something towards putting a check on the outrageous impositions practised on northern agricultural emigrants to Florida, by encouraging the organization of a railroad land-company, which offers a forty-acre homestead for fifty dollars, to be selected out of nearly six hundred thousand acres of land along their highway across the state. A man of comparatively small means can now try the experiment of making a home in the mild climate of Florida, and if he afterwards abandons the enterprise there will have been but a small investment of capital, and consequently little loss.
The turpentine distillery of Dutton was situated in a heavy forest of lofty pines. Major C. K. Dutton furnished a team of mules to haul the Maria Theresa to the St. Mary's River, the morning after my arrival by rail at Dutton Station. The warm sunshine shot aslant the tall pines as the teamster followed a faintly developed trail towards the swamps. Before noon the flashing waters of the stream were discernible, and a little later, with paddle in hand, I was urging the canoe towards the Atlantic coast. A luxurious growth of trees and shrubs fringed the low, and in some places submerged, river shores. Back, on the higher, sandy soils, the yellow pine forests, in almost primeval grandeur, arose, shutting out all view of the horizon. Low bluffs, with white, sandy beaches of a few rods in extent, offered excellent camping-grounds.
When the Cracker of Okefenokee Swamp is asked why he lives in so desolate a region, with only a few Cattle and hogs for companions, with mosquitoes, fleas, and vermin about him, with alligators, catamounts, and owls on all sides, making night hideous, he usually replies, "Wal, stranger, wood and water is so powerful handy. Sich privileges ain't met with everywhar."
[ FROM ST. SIMON'S SOUND, GEORGIA, TO CEDAR KEYS, FLORIDA ]
As I glided swiftly down the dark current I peered into the dense woods, hoping to be cheered by the sight of a settler's cabin; but in all that day's search not a clearing could be found, nor could I discern rising from the treetops of the solitary forest a little cloud of smoke issuing from the chimney of civilized man. I was alone in the vast wilds through which the beautiful river flowed noiselessly but swiftly to the sea. Thoreau loved a swamp, and so do all lovers of nature, for nowhere else does she so bountifully show her vigorous powers of growth, her varied wealth of botanical wonders. Here the birds resort in flocks when weary of the hot, sandy uplands, for here they find pure water, cool shade, and many a curious glossy berry for their dainty appetites.